Dilemma of a Young Writer
(Speech /- paper delivered at Think Literature – a literary festival organized by Times of India and Tefla’s at Bhubaneshwar, 7-8 December 2012)
Today, it is my privilege to stand in front of you as a Young Gujarati Novelist. I love this tag. Especially the ‘Young’ part. Well, at the age of 41 if you are still labeled as ‘young’ rather than ‘middle aged’… it is party-time! Actually, we did have a party last night. Sometimes I am also branded as a Popular Writer And An Emerging New Voice of contemporary Gujarati novel. Popular? Yes. Simply because both of my novels have been serialized in largest selling – and of course, most popular – Gujarati weekly magazines. So by definition, it does makes me ‘popular’. But a ‘New Voice’?
Too many question. But I think it is a good sign. Apparently it also marks my topic of the day: Dilemma of a Young Novelist.
Being ‘a Voice’ in the field of writing generally means writing stuff that possess strong literary values; being closer to classicism. Now as per popular perception, isn’t being ‘Popular’ and being literary-and-classically-heavy supposed to be two different things? Even opposite sometimes? So what am I? Or what I eventually want to become? An increasingly Popular writer or a Voice loaded with classicism?
Friends, when I was still in school both of elder sisters were studying their BA with Gujarati literature. They are 8 and 6 years older to me respectively. Like most of their friends they didn’t even bother to buy actual textbooks. All they would buy was guides of the textbooks with readymade question-answers.
Now that became my first exposure to classic criticism. I found their material very fascinating:
– Chandrakant Baxi ki kahani, Madhu Rye ki Kahani, Chunilal Madiya ki kahani – these all are great Gujarati writers, Saroj Pathak ki shreth kahaniyan ki puri ki puri textbook … Iss kavita mein kavi kya kehna chahta hai… Iss kavita mein kaun se rupak aur alankar ke prayog kiye gaye hai… Iss pankti ka rass-darshan karvaiye… Iss navalika mein jis symbolism ka prayog kiya gaya hai usse vistaar se samjaiye… and all that stuff.
And I used to love it! I was still a 10 or 11 or 12 years old school kid then and I used to read this material with amazing sincerity, far more than my sisters would. The point here is, it is classic criticism that lay foundation for my literary understanding. It is this serious literature that unknowingly became my foundation.
Classic criticism. Serious literature. Not the popular literature.
But I was of course exposed to popular fiction as well during same time. All Gujarati newspapers and magazines used to publish serialized novels – dharavahik navalkatha – in their Sunday supplements. They still do. The novels written by amazingly popular superstar novelists – Harkisan Mehta and Ashwinee Bhatt – created a great impact on more than one generations.
So these were the most important influences in my growing up years – classic criticism, first and then popular serialized novels. Strictly in that order. There are my genes, my DNA.
And it baffles me. As I say this, why did I make separate compartments of classic literature and popular literature? Why did I draw a line? Why on earth did I imply that classic literature can not be popular and popular literature can not be classic? From where did this come from? Does this mean I am conditioned already to think this way? Does this also mean that since I am emerging as a popular novelist, I would not be taken seriously automatically?
Does this bother me? Am I concerned? Frankly, yes. Why it is always Popular Fiction ‘Versus’ Literary Fiction? Why they are generally perceived as mutually exclusive entities?
However it gives me great comfort when I realize that Kaniyalal Munshi – one of the all greatest writers of my language – has written some his most iconic novels in serialized format. Another giant, Zavarchand Meghani, too have written some of his classic work in same manner. They were popular then and they are being read even today. Charles Dickens, as we all know, has written serialized novels. Even Tolstoy’s great epic, War and Peace, serialized over a period of five years, 1864-1869. At first, the critics were completely baffled by it. It did not gain critical acceptance until several years after it was completed. Similarly, Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s next work, was also serialized later.
I am a greedy writer. I want my readers – oh, lots of them. They are the ones who make the entire process so lively and enjoyable. I have just tasted little bit of popularity – and it is intoxicating. But I don’t want to be a Rakhi Sawant of Gujarati literature. Now, Rakhi Sawant is a great lady, I am sure. And I am using her name just as a metaphor. Well, I wouldn’t mind going on date with her, but in order to seek attention and to be constantly ‘seen’ on newspaper and magazine pages, I can’t do what a Rakhi does.
I need critical acceptance too. Not because it is cool to be accepted by critics, but because, as I said earlier, my literary senses are born out of classic criticism – it is in my DNA.
So my dilemma as a Young Upcoming Novelist is, will I be able to find some magic formula to ensure and balance popularity as well as classicism?
That brings me to next dilemma. Upto what extent a regional writer – be it Gujarati or Kannad or Oriya or Marathi – can be popular and recognized on national level? India is such a complex country with so many principal languages, upto what extent a regional writer can break geographical and linguistic boundaries? In such a scenario, can a Great Indian Novel be actually born? I am talking about regional languages here. Not Indian writers like a Salman Rushdie or an Arundhati Roy who write in English. You do sense certain arrogance and cockiness in their attitude. Let’s not talk about them, there is enough media talking about them. Let’s talk about writers writing in Indian languages.
Entire panel of ‘The Great Indian Novel?’ session: (sitting from L to R) Prof. Jatin Nayak, the moderator of the discussion and winner of Katha as well as Crossword Book Award, Padmashri Pratibha Ray – an eminent fiction writer of contemporary India. She is a household name in Orissa. Her name has been translated in many Indian languages; Our very own Kajal Oza-Vaidya – a celebrity fiction writer of Gujarat. (Great Gujarati poet Padmashri Sitanshu Yashaschandra, Kajal Oza-Vaidya and me were the representatives of Gujarati language at the fest); and Gitanjali Shree – a Delhi based Hindi novelist.
What is ‘Great’ in the first place? How does one define or quantify or identify ‘greatness’? Okay, in simple terms, we would say, great literature is something that enriches us, something which is timeless, has an universal appeal etc. Do the regional languages have enough genuine critics who are alert, quick and active to capture ‘greatness’ that is already taking place in their language?
Ok, let’s assume that ‘Great Regional Novel’ is spotted and duly recognized and even celebrated in of that particular language. What next? Isn’t its greatness still confined by its state, its language? For ‘Great Regional Novel’ to become ‘Great Indian Novel’, it has to be translated into English first and then, maybe, God knows in how many years, it would travel towards other Indian languages. It is excruciatingly long and via, via route. Isn’t it strange that Great Indian Novel – if and when it happens – has to be dependant on English translation first? Does it essentially mean that, Great Regional Novel will almost never assume its deserving greatness and stature in real time?
Let me give you an example from contemporary Gujarati scene. We have Mr. Dhruv Bhatt, who has given some amazing novels which can be almost termed as contemporary classics. Mr. Dhruv Bhatt may not be a popular or household name, but thankfully, he has been recognized by serious readers and critics. Some of his work has been translated into Marathi and English, but I don’t know how many of you have heard about him or read him. Mr. Dhruv Bhatt continues to be a Great Contemporary Regional Novelist. He still has not become a Great Indian Novelist. And I don’t think Mr. Bhatt will even graduate to become a even a candidate to be branded as Great Indian Novelist in his lifetime. All of Gujarati giants, my literary Gods, even some of their work have been translated into English and other languages continue to be just that – Gujarti giants. Even though their literature is as par with world literature. It is true to all regional languages.
Too many variables, too many ifs and buts. Yes, translations do happen, exchanges between various languages do take place, but I think the force is missing, awareness is missing, and reach is missing. In this context, perhaps Indian novelists writing in English are in far better position.
So maybe ‘Great Indian – Regional Novel’ is a myth? An illusion? Something that can never happen in real time? Maybe we should not attach too much importance to external greatness? Great is literature is a great literature. And it will continue to enrich us. Period.
With too many questions and too may dilemmas, I rest my case. (Ends)
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Some visual highlights of the Festival:
Swosti Premium Hotel of Bhubaneshwar – the venue of the event
Padmashri Manoj Das – India’s foremost fiction writer who writes in English and Oriya. Also a well-known thinker.
Padmashri Sitanshu Yashaschandra – a prominent contemporary Gujarati poet, playwright and academician.
(From L to R): Jayant Mahapatra – one of the India’s best known English poets, K. Satchidanandan – a major poet, playwright and critic writing in Malayalam and English, the executive head of the Sahitya Akademi for a decade and Sudeep Sen – one of the finest English poets widely known in the international scene.
Charan Sharma (left) – a well-known contemporary painter and Jatin Das – one of the major painters of India who
are well-known even internationally
Padmashri Ramgopal Bajal – a former director of National School of Drama, noted theater director and acadeician.
Since the theme of the Festival was Harmony, apart from writers, people from the field of acting, dance,
painting and media too were invited.
Shabana Azmi – one of the all-time-great actresses that India has ever produced
Nandita Das – a well-known actress and theater person. Also a film director and a columnist. She writes a column in Week magazine. She is a daughter of Jatin Das and Varsha Das. She speaks surprisingly beautiful Gujarati simply because her mother-tongue is Gujarati.
Manjushri Panda – a well-known Odishi danseuse who wonderfully presented a dance rendition on Yajnaseni,
based on award winning novel by Dr. Pratibha Ray
Anton Kalinin and Ms Kateryna Trykoz – the international artists known as Duo Happiness.
They are former winners of The Russia’s Got Talent show.
The speakers /- panelists who participated in the Think Literature 2012 festival
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– Shishir Ramavat
( Note – This Article is Originaly Written in Year 2012 )